Dining and food culture in Chicago

Resto 100: Chicago’s essential restaurants of 2010

African, Albany Park, American, Andersonville, Argentinian, Auburn Gresham, Avondale, Barbecue, Belmont-Cragin, Beverly, Bistro, Brazilian, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bronzeville, Bucktown, Burbank, Burgers, Cajun/Creole, Caribbean, Chatham, Chinatown, Chinese, Cicero, Contemporary Comfort, Costa Rican, Cuban, Czech, Deli, East Garfield Park, Edgewater, Elmwood Park, Ethiopian, Evanston, Fast Food/Street Food, Filipino, French, Gastropub, German, Gold Coast, Greek, Greektown, Guides & Lists, Hermosa, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Indian, Irving Park, Italian, Italian Beef, Japanese, Kenwood, Korean, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Lithuanian, Little Italy, Logan Square, Loop, Mediterranean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Near North, Near South Side, Nepalese, New American, Oak Park, Pakistani, Pan-Asian, Pilsen, Pizza, Puerto Rican, Punk Haute, Ravenswood, River North, River West, Rogers Park, Roscoe Village, Sandwiches, Seafood, Soul Food, South Loop, Spanish, Steakhouse, Sushi, Thai, Trends & Essays, Ukrainian Village, Uptown, Vegetarian, Vietnamese, West Loop, West Town, Wicker Park No Comments »

Resto 100 is, as always, a list of “essential” restaurants, which is most definitely not synonymous with “best.” We strive to reflect a world of dining in a constant state of innovative transition, to capture a snapshot of the state of the food world at this time.

As last year, when we first dropped Charlie Trotter’s, we’ve continued to cull the old guard of the high-end, both as a reflection of the economic times and as a call to action for such spots to up their game. This year, TRU, MK and Boka didn’t escape the chopping block. While we don’t deny their importance in creating the food scene we have today, there are many other places we’d rather send folks—for example, Sepia, Bonsoiree or Cibo Matto (where, ironically, chef Todd Stein is a vet of MK).

Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand are two of the most successful cooks this city has, but neither spends a significant amount of time at TRU. This is not so much an observation as it’s a cry for the fact that we really miss Rick’s cooking. We appreciate his cookbooks and that he tried to open a nationwide restaurant chain, but with that not working out, why not return to his roots? It should also be noted that Chef de Cuisine Tim Graham was doing some incredibly innovative work, but was recently transferred to Brasserie Jo.

Boka, which we loved for its Charlie Trotteresque complexity, has frankly been a little inconsistent in its execution on recent visits, and frankly maybe too Trotteresque. We love the direction Perennial has gone, look forward to Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat, and think maybe they outshine the original jewel in Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz’s mini-empire.

That’s not to say you have to be cutting-edge innovative or perfect to make the list. For if you do something old-school or classic and you continue to do it well and you didn’t make your bones by being a game-changer, we honor that as well. This year, we added some overlooked classics including Marie’s Pizza, Ginza and, much to our own surprise, Hyde Park’s Calypso Café. Maybe the biggest surprise was Café des Architectes, which used to be as old-school as it gets. Martial Noguier and his pastry chef Suzanne Imaz are probably two of this city’s most underrated cooks, putting out slighty twisted old-school French gourmet plates flawlessly.

Likewise, the trend of informal, casual rustic dining doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere, and we dig that. To celebrate that movement we’ve added The Bristol, Paramount Room, Brown Trout, Kith and Kin and others.

The beauty of any list, though, is that you may not agree. So drop us a line and let us know.

—Michael Nagrant, Resto 100 editor Read the rest of this entry »

Resto 100: Chicago’s Essential Restaurants 2009

African, Albany Park, Andersonville, Auburn Gresham, Barbecue, Belmont-Cragin, Bistro, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bucktown, Burgers, Cajun/Creole, Chinatown, Chinese, Contemporary Comfort, Costa Rican, Cuban, Deli, East Garfield Park, Events, Fast Food/Street Food, Filipino, French, Gastropub, Gold Coast, Greek, Greektown, Guides & Lists, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Irving Park, Italian, Italian Beef, Korean, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Little Italy, Logan Square, Loop, Mediterranean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Near South Side, New American, Organics, Pakistani, Palestinian, Pan-Asian, Pilsen, Pizza, Punk Haute, Ravenswood, River North, River West, Rogers Park, Seafood, Senegalese, Soul Food, South Loop, South Shore, Spanish, Steakhouse, Sushi, Thai, Trends & Essays, Ukrainian Village, Uptown, Vegetarian, Vietnamese, West Loop, Wicker Park 4 Comments »
In the kitchen at Alinea/Photo: Lara Kastner

In the kitchen at Alinea/Photo: Lara Kastner

Resto 100 is, as it has been in years past, a list of “essential” restaurants, which is most definitely not synonymous with “best.” We strive to reflect a world of dining in a constant state of innovative transition, to capture a snapshot of the state of the food world at this time.

In these particular hard economic times, we find ourselves dining out a lot more at the BYOBs, mom-and pop-spots and small ethnic joints than we do at the high end.  That being said, while we didn’t set out to consciously create a list to address our lighter wallets, it sure turned out that way.  More than ever, this list is a cross section of the wealth of culturally diverse and reasonably priced restaurants Chicago is lucky to have. Read the rest of this entry »

Beef Bailout: Mr. Beef must be kept in place

Cuisine, etc., Italian Beef, River North No Comments »

mrbeefRiver North’s Mr. Beef Deli has been serving Chicagoans beef sandwiches for thirty years. Its walls, decorated with old and new album covers, movie posters and autographed celebrity photos, testify to both its age and enduring popularity. In a much-publicized crisis, Mr. Beef is facing foreclosure. Unable to get a new line of credit “in these economic times,” the sandwich shop may be forced to shut its doors. Read the rest of this entry »

Sandwich Safari: Sifting through the debris in Glenview

Glenview, Italian Beef No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the word “debris” had one meaning in New Orleans. It was an iconic roast beef po-boy served at 401 Poydras Street at the corner of Tchoupitoulas at a spot called Mother’s. The lore is that a customer asked original owner Simon Landry to add the bits of roast beef that had fallen into the gravy while Landry was carving slices for the customer’s sandwich to his bun. Landry allegedly replied “You mean some of the debris?”

These days the sandwich is so popular, lines at Mother’s make the weekend queue at Hot Doug’s look like a women’s bathroom line at Augusta National Golf Club. And God help you if you stop by in the middle of Jazzfest, as I did, only to wait an hour and a half for a table. Ravenous, and never one to turn down pork, I opted for Mother’s other iconic sandwich, the Ferdi, which is basically a debris with ham on top. Beef strands blanketed in salty pork fat is a magnificent combo. As with so many things from that trip, I’d longed for a Chicago version of the sandwich to keep me inspired in between trips to the Big Easy.

Our Italian Beef is certainly a close cousin of the debris, but it’s much leaner and the shaved sheets of beef don’t quite resemble the tender shards found at Mother’s. Enter Fred Markoff, owner of suburban Glenview’s fRedhots and Fries. Markoff, unlike most of the corner dog stands in Chicagoland, makes his own Italian beef and gravy. He found after he roasted off a side of beef, he was left with a sediment of beef bits and veg seasoned by the gravy. For a while, he ate what he could as a kitchen snack and chucked the rest. Then he decided to throw it up as a sandwich on his regular menu.

Though they had the debris and though fRedhot’s has been open for a couple of years, I avoided it out of a weird modified brand of locavorism. In reality it was really a mix of misguided suburban xenophobia and stubborn loyalty. You see, Markoff just happened to sell wild game sausages (reindeer, elk) topped with gourmet cheeses and condiments. He reminded me of a certain favorite proprietor, aka Doug Sohn of Hot Doug’s.

But then my microwave blew up. I was sitting on my couch when I heard a pop and then a persistent hum. I live in a West Loop loft prone to carryover noise from the neighbors, and thought the sound was coming from upstairs. When it didn’t go away, I walked around the house until I smelled an acrid tang coming from the microwave. Scarily, the hum continued with the door closed. It took me a few minutes to realize I could shut the thing off by pulling the power cord out from the wall, giving me ample time to run a bunch of radiation exposure scenarios and wonder whether my future offspring might have tentacles. Once the thing was off, I decided to go all Laura Ingalls Wilder and rough it for the next six weeks sans microwave. Unfortunately, my wife does not share my enthusiasm for cooking like an ancient prairie dweller. Longtime readers will also know I have an unhealthy obsession with Hot Pockets of which the greatest virtue is a two-minute microwave cooking time.

So with the jig up, I headed to appliance Disneyland, aka Abt appliances in Glenview (they have Vegas-like fountains in their lobby), to pick out a replacement. But, as with most trips, this particular jaunt was masquerading as a sideline to my occupation for sniffing out good food. Put another way, even world-class appliance-shopping in Glenview is really just an excuse to eat. I was afraid if I didn’t have a spot planned ahead, I’d end up choking to death on a riblet in a misguided hunger-induced trip to Applebee’s. After some research I settled on fRedhots and Fries.

So, thanks to an appliance mishap, I got a shot at Markoff’s debris. It’s not anything like Mother’s. It’s better. Mother’s is a touch sinewy and features occasional gristle or fat. Markoff’s version is the very essence of Italian beef, a pure surface-area affair made up of thousands of tiny beef chunks soaked in gravy, seasoning and studded with rich veggie bits. Throw some giardinara on top and I’m not sure you’ll want a regular Italian beef anymore.

Like the debris, pretty much everything here is good. The merguez (lamb sausage) features a satisfying richness cut by refreshing sweet-mint pesto. Even the condiments on your basic dog are inspired: the onion is fresh, not soggy, and is diced to the same size as and thus doesn’t overwhelm the relish like at other spots. The sweet potato fries, thick orange planks dusted in maple-cinnamon sugar, are the best example of the form I’ve had locally. And don’t tell Doug Sohn, but the regular frites, which come with your choice of dipping sauce including garlic or “pumpkin pie” aioli, are just as good, if not better, than the awesome spuds found at Hot Doug’s.

fRedhots and Fries is located at 1707 Chestnut, Glenview, (847)657-9200

It’s All in the Surname: Orleans Street’s famous beef stop

Italian Beef, River North 1 Comment »

imagesEstablishing yourself as a so-called “Chicago institution” usually takes time, effort and an inordinate amount of luck. For Mr. Beef at 666 North Orleans, it was many years before the beef stand’s big break: Jay Leno being named host of “The Tonight Show.”

“He pretty much promised my father, ‘If I make it on ‘The Tonight Show,’ I’m putting this place on the map,’” says Chris Zucchero, Mr. Beef’s co-owner and manager, explaining that Leno would come to the shop weekly and order their now-defunct meatball sandwich. “He was the first celebrity we had walk in this place and after that it just sorta trickled down and everybody started coming in here.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Beef Issue: An exploration of the socio-cultural anthropology of Italian Beef

Italian Beef, Mt. Greenwood, Portage Park, River West, South Lawndale No Comments »

johnniesitalian-menuBy Thomas Barbee, Laura Castellano, Tom Lynch, Michael Nagrant, Sarah Nardi and Andy Seifert

After  a weekend of ice storms, we like to remind ourselves of the reasons we love Chicago. And few things make Chicago finer than its native sandwich, the Italian Beef, an offering so ubiquitous around here that ex-pats are usually amazed to discover that it’s an “only-in-Chicago” thing. In that spirit, we offer up a bite of the city’s best beefs. Read the rest of this entry »

Roma If You Want To: Ron Sommario does it his way

Italian Beef, Portage Park 1 Comment »

On the corner of Cicero and Hutchinson in the city’s Portage Park neighborhood, the bright green awning of Roma’s Italian Beef & Sausage marks the spot where Ron Sommario staked his claim thirty-five years ago. Today, he is behind the counter cheerfully issuing commands to his team of three employees. He addresses each with a gentle, patriarchal affection, even the one who just started and still “needs a little breaking in.” After making all the necessary arrangements, he vacates his post and heads over to a line of stools facing a picture window with a view of the heavy traffic on Cicero Avenue.  “Now where are my glasses?” he asks, looking everywhere save for the counter in front of him where they sit. “Oh,” he says and picks them up with a wink, displaying a bit of that irresistible colloquial charm unique to the stalwarts of Chicago’s older neighborhoods. Read the rest of this entry »

Legends of the Beef: Where’s the beef (come from)?

Italian Beef No Comments »

The simple beef sandwich was born on an August morning in 1762. That day, the notoriously corrupt fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, requested something far from a dainty teacake. He wanted roast beef between two slices of bread so he could eat easily with one hand, and gamble with the other.

The commercial sandwich industry in Britain is worth five billion pounds, according to Jim Winship, director of The British Sandwich Association. “We’re way ahead of the U.S.,” he says, quickly noting that the cheeseburger does not count as a sandwich. However, after some careful thought, he said, he would consider the Italian beef a sandwich. “I suppose if it’s hot beef between two pieces of bread then, yes, technically it is a sandwich.”

The British gentry universalized the beef sandwich, but those who popularized one very special Chicago sandwich—the Italian beef—was a very different group indeed.

As legend has it, Pasquale Scala was an Italian immigrant in Chicago, a sausage and meat connoisseur, who packaged and delivered his goods via horse-drawn carriage to his neighbors in the early twentieth century. After the depression his packing company began to slice the beef thinner and smother it with gravy—a still hearty meal for less money.

It seems hard to believe that one man, Montagu or Scala, could have popularized a form of the sandwich all on his own (there is speculation that Montagu’s estate workers were already eating the roast beef sandwich). So, as is with history, there is another version of the story: During tight times workers at the Union Stockyards brought unwanted scraps of beef home to feed their families. To soften the tough stuff they simmered it in broth, flavored it using typical Italian spices and put it between pieces of hearty bread.

Either way, one thing is true: Chicago is thankful.(Laura Castellano)